Transcription – Charlie Cook Interview

COOK: Well, [00:55:00] sort of looking back at conventions past, I think Republicans for a long time were a lot better at conventions than Democrats were. And the first Democratic convention that I thought was really stage-managed in a way that was comparable to Republicans was 1988. I mean, I remember going to the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas. And how it was choreographed. And that was when they did the film with Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless the USA”, first time in a political context I think it was ever used. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire hall. And ’88 was the first time the Democratic convention, I thought, was really on par with the Republican convention. And now I think we’re to the point where — [00:56:00] thinking about 2008 and 2012, where I think the Democratic conventions were more impressively put on than Republicans. That, you know, we typically have sort of these — almost like an arms race, where one side’s overpowering the other and then the advantage shifts to the other side. And I think, you know, there was a period when Republicans won the presidency five times out of six. And then since then there’s been a little bit of a coasting on their part, right? I do think Republicans have lost a lot of their edge. A lot of the natural technical advantages that they used to have, they don’t have anymore. And that in some ways they probably just need — probably a good thumping would do the Republican Party a lot of good, where they would go back [00:57:00] to scratch and get rid of some bad habits and eradicate some bad ideas and kind of remake. You know, after the Goldwater ’64 disaster, you know, the Republican Party came back and won the presidency four years later. After the McGovern disaster of ’72, the Democrats remade themselves and came back in ’76 and won the presidency with Jimmy Carter. That sometimes a party needs just a good thrashing to turn itself around.

Q: The Republican convention that year really took out after Kerry — Zell Miller, a Democratic (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) —

COOK: Yeah.

Q: — who spoke there —

COOK: That was Philadelphia, right?

Q: That was New York.

COOK: New York.

Q: So that — and there was even —

COOK: They’re all blending together.

Q: And it was right on the eve —

COOK: Yes.

Q: — of the September 11th attacks.

COOK: Right, right, right, right, right. Which was not coincidental.

Q: No.

COOK: [00:58:00] Yeah, I…

Q: Yeah.

COOK: It’s been a long time.

Q: Well, going into the campaign, I mean, it seemed like the polls almost never moved very far one way or the other.

COOK: Yeah. There’s a real stability there. And there wasn’t… you know, and that was one of the last campaigns where I think before the advent of a lot of garbage polling that we’re seeing right now of rather dubious methodology and where the barriers of entry of being able to call yourself a pollster were still pretty high then, although you were starting to see some of this. But — and now you can just sort of see whatever you want to see. And you know, that doesn’t — 2012 obviously had different issues, different problems. [00:59:00] But yeah, you’re right, it was a very stable — very, very stable race, and you know, nobody really knew going into the last few days which way it was going to go, which made it a very exciting campaign. But that all of that spadework that the Bush campaign did — the behind-the-scenes organizational stuff — it really did pay off for him.

Q: You mentioned the vice-presidential debate earlier. And you had the three presidential debates as well. Now, some people have observed about Bush, about Obama, that when presidents run for reelection, they really just don’t want to have to deal with that stuff. (laughter) I remember the first Bush-Kerry debate was a thumping for…

COOK: There seems to be a pattern of incumbent presidents doing badly in the first debates. And [01:00:00] I think you touched on it, that you have a president who doesn’t do that many press conferences, and where even in presidential press conferences it’s hardly sort of taking the gloves off. And where you’re not used to getting a lot of pushback from advisers. And there’s all the deference that exists, appropriately, of a president. So there’s this “Why do I have to do this? Why do I have to do that? I’ve been doing a great job as president for four years; why do I have to demean myself and stand on the stage with this clown?” I mean, I think there’s a certain amount of that, and it doesn’t matter which president you are. And you have to kind to get cut down to size in that first debate, and it typically happens, because [01:01:00] it was — you know, certainly was apparent with Obama in 2012, the overconfidence, and where the challenger knows they’re a challenger and knows that they’ve got to be very aggressive. That being passive, that being deferential isn’t going to win the presidency. So I think the challengers tend to have a psychological edge in those first debates.

Q: It was also a little weird that in two of those debates, the one with Edwards-Cheney and then one of the Kerry-Bush debates, that the Democrat brought up Mary Cheney being a lesbian. You know, that was just so jarring, and I think the Bush people were able to make a little use out of it.

COOK: Well, it — you know, heck, I’ve lived in Washington forever, so I’m hardly representative of the American people. But [01:02:00] my hunch is that a lot of people felt like that was a really cheap shot, and that you really need to leave family members out. And you had a lot of Democrats having to do a lot of explaining about why that wasn’t a cheap shot. Because I guarantee you that had a Republican done that, had the shoe been on the other foot, oh, Lord, it would have been very, very, very ugly.

Q: What do you think, then —

COOK: And I think Cheney — Cheney handled it very, very well. You know, I mean, and I think, you know, everybody wants a dad that’s going to back them up. And he did, and I think it sort of exposed a character flaw that we later saw develop further with John Edwards. [01:03:00]

Q: What do you think Bush’s strengths and weaknesses were as a candidate?

COOK: Well, I think the strength was that here’s somebody who’s clearly comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is, wasn’t really pretending to be anything else. And you know, people thought he seemed to be kind of a regular guy. And Vice-President Gore seemed stiff, you know, formal. You could — you know, Peter Hart, you know, the pollster, you know, a lot of times he’ll ask in focus groups things like, “Who would you rather have come over for a backyard barbecue?” You know, “Who would you — and who would you feel — who — if you had to carpool to work for an hour every day, [01:04:00] who would you rather carpool with?” You know, things like that that sort of peel back layers and expose what people really think. And where, you know, who you’d rather have your kid get help on homework versus who you want to spend time with and who you fundamentally trust: those are different. Those are real different. And so I think the realism was there.

I think that — you know, and again, we’re talking in 2013 — I think that Democrats firmly believe that a lot of the attacks on President Obama have been incredibly personal and mean-spirited and totally inappropriate. But I look at [01:05:00] a lot of the attacks on President Bush in exactly the same vein. And that people tend to overlook transgressions on their side but are very quick to seize on inappropriate attacks or remarks on the other. And you know, that’s why it’s easy for me to sit in the middle, because quite frankly I find a lot of pretty contemptuous behavior on both sides. And it’s easier to just kind of call them on each side. But I think, you know, who he was — they had a sense of who he was. I think that was his strength. That you knew that he wasn’t putting on everything. I mean, when people — foreign policy-wise, that [01:06:00] you could agree or disagree with him, but you knew he believed in what he was doing, as opposed to doing something for — to get political advantage. I don’t think anyone ever questioned that he was convinced that there was a very good reason to go after Iraq. And you can agree or disagree with what he did, but no question, he firmly believed it.

Q: Did he have weaknesses as a candidate?

COOK: Oh, sure. I mean… (pause) Boy, we’re going way back memory lane.

Q: I guess whatever weaknesses he had as a candidate would have been weaknesses he had as a president, because —

COOK: Yeah, I mean —

Q: — he was running for the office —

COOK: — it’s the same cloth. [01:07:00] But I think he — I think President Bush — Governor Bush, President Bush — sought out strong advisers and very solid people and listened to them.

Q: That’s interesting, because talking about Bush earlier, the fact that he was able to command the loyalties of the same team from 2000 to 2004 and beyond, I guess, both of his opponents — Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004 — essentially had teams of hired guns.

COOK: Yeah.

Q: Not a whole lot of personal loyalty there.